Kontinen-Peers Open New Season Looking For More
2017 ended just as 2016 did with Henri Kontinen and John Peers crowned as the doubles champions at the ATP Nitto Finals. And for the second straight year, it was not enough for Kontinen and Peers to claim the year-end #1 ranking. That feat went to Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo in 2017. The top dogs on the doubles tour ended the season with six titles, three which came at Masters 1000 events and the cherry on top at Wimbledon. Kontinen-Peers wound up around 700 points behind Kubot-Melo, winning five titles including the Australian Open. They also added a Masters title in Shanghai to go along with the Aussie and Tour Finals as their three high profile titles.
Rounding out the top eight finishers in 2017 were Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares in third, Jean Julien-Rojer and Horia Tecau at #4, the Bryans at #5, Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut in sixth, Ivan Dodig and Marcel Granollers in 7th and Michael Venus and Ryan Harrison in 8th. Murray-Soares are back as a regular team again in 2018, already notching a win at the Qatar Open. This will be their third year as a pairing with a combined record of 87-39 through the first two years of their partnership. Altough they ended 2017 with the same number of doubles titles (3) that they captured in 2016, the season seemed more of a struggle for major success. Of course the bar was set high in 2016 when they won both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open. Last year, they won two of their three titles on grass in Stuttgart and at Queen’s Club in London.
Rojer-Tecau return for their fifth year together. 2017 was a poor one by ther usual standards, but they got hot near the end of the year to get to the 40 win mark for the third time in four years. They would take hom four titles with their best run of form coming in back-to-back tournaments, winning in Winston-Salem and then claiming their 2nd Slam together at the U.S. Open.
Mahut-Herbert will be teaming up for the fourth year, although 2017 did mark the least amount of matches played together at 38. A lot of that can be attributed to both still pushing their singles play, which kept them apart for some tournaments. Overall, the season was quite the roller coaster. They did claim three Masters titles, including an impressive run back-to-back in Montreal and Cincinnati. At Slams however, the French duo flopped. They lost their opening round matches both at the French Open and U.S. Open, an flamed out in round two at Wimbledon. Their best run came at the Australian Open, where they made the quarterfinals.
The Bryans, Mike and Bob, are back for a 20th season together on tour. The American twins played their first complete season together in 1999 and saw a remarkable run of 40 win seasons end at 19 last year. They were just a win shy at 39-21. The Bryans recorded their lowest title tally at two in 2017 since their first years on tour, when they went without titles in 1999 and 2000. The twins, who turn 40 in April, also went a third straight year without a Grand Slam title. They did make the Australian Open final in 2017 and also scored a semifinal berth at the U.S. Open. Both the French and Wimbledon were flops though as they lost in the second round of both tournaments.
Ivan Dodig and Marcel Granollers have been chosen to go with different partners at least to begin 2018. Dodig is teaming with Fernando Verdasco with that tandem scoring a win in Doha this week. Verdasco may be more well known for his singles accumen, but the Spaniard has been a fairly regular doubles player as well with seven career titles. Granollers is partnering with Fabio Fognini. Granollers has gone on record saying that singles is his priority to start 2018. It seems like there is some room for a Dodig-Granollers reunion perhaps later in the season depending on commitments.
Venus and Harrison have also split and there is not expected to be a reunion with Venus choosing to go with South African Raven Klaasen as his regular partner this season. Venus-Harrison were one of the better doubles stories of 2017. They first teamed on clay in Budapest and then a month later with unseeded champions at Roland Garros. They followed that up with a quarterfinal run at Wimbledon and wound up with the last spot for the Tour Finals losing their openers in nine of the 15 tournaments they participated in together. Venus is teaming with Marcelo Demoliner this week in Brisbane, but is expected to switch to Klaasen beginning with the ASB Classic in Venus’ homeland, New Zealand.
Nestor Hoping to Finish With a Flourish
Canadian Daniel Nestor has announced that 2018 will be his final year on tour. The 45-year-old has stated that he’ll throw in the towel on an illustrious doubles career either after this year’s Rogers Cup or the U.S. Open. Nestor has 91 career doubles titles, although he did not win one in 2017. That ended a ridiculous 23 year run in which he had won at least one doubles title at the ATP level. Nestor completed the career Grand Slam in 2008, when he won at Wimbledon. He has a dozen career Grand Slam doubles titles, with eight coming in men’s play and four in mixed. His last Slam title came in 2012 at the French Open.
Nestor said last year’s slumping season in which he went just 21-30 helped make his decision to call it quits this season an easy one. Nestor looks likely to play partner roulette again this season. He’s teamed up with Philipp Oswald to open play at the Qatar Open, where to lost to Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic in straights. The Canadian has plans to team with Donald Young next week, before switching to Jonathan Erlich for Australian Open play. Regardless of how his storied career plays out, Nestor will always have one distinction that cannot be taken away from him – he was the first player ever to win 1,000 matches on the ATP World Tour in doubles. He recorded that record setter back in January 2016 in Sydney.
New Pairings Looking to Provide Sparks For Veteran Players
As usual, there is a lot of partner swapping taking place to start 2018 and as usual, don’t expect that the changes won’t continue in the early months as players jockey for the right fit. Among the new teams announced for the new season are Americans Rajeev Ram and Brian Baker. Ram announced his retirement from singles competition last season and will have a new partner for the first time since 2014. Ram teamed up with Klaasen from 2015-2017 with the duo winning five titles, the biggest of which came last year at Indian Wells. Baker seems to have found more of a niche in doubles the last few years after suffering through injury riddled singles seasons. He’s gone 52-25 in doubles play the last two years. He had a very successful partnership with Nikola Mektic in 2017 with that pair winning titles in Memphis and Budapest. The teaming with Ram could be one to watch this season with both committed to doubles play now after up and down singles’ careers.
Nenad Zimonjic continues the doubles grind at 41. This year, he’ll team with Florin Mergea. The duo lost their debut to Dodig-Verdasco in Doha. Mergea split most of his 2017 between Dominic Inglot and Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi. He finishes just 15-16 on the season. Zimonjic was 25-27 with an astonishing 20 different partners in 2017. The Serb did win his first title since 2014, while teamed up witk Viktor Troicki in Sofia. Certainly having a stable partner could help Zimonjic this season.
The man of so many partners we’ve lost count also is starting the new season with yes, a new partner! Leander Paes entered 2018 with fellow-Indian Purav Raja announced as his regular partner. The duo lost their opener in Pune, but appeared to have some chemistry while going 12-7 in 2017 when they paired up. They won back-to-back Challenger titles in Knoxville and Champaign to end the season. Paes did have eleven other partners in 2017 and failed to win a title at the ATP level for the second straight season.
The 44-year old will hope that Raja can help end that. Raja had been paired with Divij Sharan pretty regularly since 2013 with the all-Indian duo winning two ATP titles in that span through August 2017 when Raja switched to teaming with Paes. Paes has at least talked a good game, sounding like a man who wants to stick more to playing with the same partner for a good chunk of the season. Paes says he expects it may take a bit more time for the pair to fully connect and start reeling off solid results at the ATP level, but he thinks it is the right fit.
The other partnership to keep an eye on in 2018 should be Rohan Bopanna and Eduoard Roger-Vasselin. Bopanna partnered the most with Pablo Cuevas last season, winning a title with Cuevas in Vienna near the end of the season. He also won with Cuevas in Monte Carlo and to start the season in Chennai with Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan. The pairing is in action this week in Pune before Bopanna and ERV connect. Roger-Vasselin was another doubles nomad in 2017, pairing with Daniel Nestor to open the year. He would also team with Frenchmen Fabrice Martin, Nicolas Mahut and Julien Benneteau as well. The Benneteau-ERV pairing produced his lone title on 2017 in Metz along with a trip to the U.S. Open quarters.
Bopanna has been a steady contributor the last few seasons with seven titles, including a Masters win each of the last two season in clay. Roger-Vasselin is no slouch with 14 career doubles titles. He has won at least one doubles title at the ATP level in six straight seasons, including the French Open titles with Benneteau in 2014. This duo has the making of one that should be a threat in the Top 10 and perhaps pushing for a spot in London.
Two teams catch my eye for 2018. One has been a steady pairing the past few seasons, while the other burst onto the scene with some big results in 2017. Let’s start with old reliable, the Colombians. That is Juan-Sebastien Cabal and Robert Farah. These two first teamed up in 2010 and have been regular partners since that time. 2017 was another steady 30+ win season for the duo, their fourth straight season to do so and fifth since 2012. They won two titles together on clay with Cabal adding a third with Treat Huey later in the season.
Overall, the Colombians have won ten titles together with eight of them coming on dirt. Generally, they have been at their best during the early South American swing on clay, winning in Buenos Aires twice and in Rio de Janeiro twice. They are not completely inept on other surfaces, but their results are definitely diminished on hard courts and grass. Still, you can expect them to provide more of the same in 2018 – a couple of titles and competitive matches. I’d expect them to be on the fringe of the top ten again. They finished 12th last season.
Now a team that looks very much sink or swim in 2018 are Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic. They finished 2017 just out of the running for a spot in London, finishing 450 points behind Harrison-Venus in 9th place. They won just one title together at the tail end of 2017 in Stockholm, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. They paired for the first time in Miami in March, but really didn’t become a factor until the grass court swing. There, Marach-Pavic hit their stride with three straight finals appearances in Stuttgart, Antalya and at Wimbledon.
Their Wimbledon final against Kubot and Melo was an instant classic. They would lose 13-11 in the fifth set, one round after they pulled out a stunning 15-13 fifth set win in the semifinals against Nikola Mektic and Franko Skugor. The remainder of their season fizzled out with an injury to Marach ending things early at the Tour Finals after a round robin loss to the Bryans. They’ve kicked off their season in Doha with a couple of wins so far. The 37-year-old Marach brings the experience with 17 career doubles titles and 21 other doubles finals’ appearances. Pavic is a young player with a big serve and great movement that really seemed ti ignite this partnership. He’s already won nine doubles titles and partnered with two others (Dodig,Inglot) in 2017 to win three combined doubles titles.
If Marach stays healthy and their chemistry continues, they could well be in position for another shot at London. They will need to prove themselves on other surfaces this year, so a quick start on hard courts would be a big boost.
So with all of that said, who do I look to be in the running for those eight spots in London this season? Here’s a look, plus my own goal(s) for these duos to improve on their 2017 results or start their new partnerships off well.
A big fat duh here to the two-time defending Nitto ATP Finals champions. They’ve won ten titles combined in the past two seasons and despite some lulls each season, they’ve always done plenty to secure a spot.
Goal: Win their second Grand Slam. For all their success, they have just the one Slam title in Australia in 2016. Melbourne seems like their best bet again as they have made the final two straight years. They’ve been in the mix at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open with semifinal showings at both last year. They showed the consistency outside of a first round flop at Roland Garros, now they need to cash in with the hardware.
This was the best team consistently for me in 2017 with the two 30-somethings finishing as the top duo in the rankings, around 700 points better than Kontinen-Peers. Their 49-18 mark lets you in on their proclivity for sniffing trophies last season. The pair won six titles and made four other finals. They did alot of that at the biggest tournaments.
Goal: Better Grand Slam results. The one area that they struggled outside of their Wimbledon win, was producing consistently good results at Slams in 2017. They didn’t make it past the second round in Paris or New York and were out in round three in Melbourne. The good thing is that leaves plenty of points to gain in 2018 with better results. I think they’ll need those if they want to be in the running for #1 again.
Another duh right? They’ve won 40+ matches in two consecutive seasons with six titles together. There was still a disappointing feel to 2017 for this tandem though with just one of their six finals appearances coming at a Masters event or Grand Slam (CincinnatI). In 2016, they won two Slams and made two Masters finals. They did make two Slam quarters last season in paris and New York, but were first round upset victims in Melbourne and second round losers in London.
Goal: Bigger results at the bigger tournaments. In 2017, they combined for a 21-13 record at Masters tournaments and Grand Slams. Their first year together in 2016, they were 28-11. They need to get to more finals, more consistently.
4. The Bryans
Even though they’ve been falling out of the Grand Slam mix as far as winning the last few seasons, the Americans still have shown they have enough in the tank to have a shot at adding to their record 16 Grand Slam victories. In making the Australian Open final last season, they ran their streak to 14 season in which they have made at least one Slam final.
Goal: Consistency. For a team accustomed to being at the top of the doubles game, the Bryans struggled with early losses too much in 2017. In 12 of their 21 tournaments played, they failed to win back-to-back matches. In order to stay within the top eight, they’ll need to improve on that number.
I really like the potential of this team. Bopanna has been a consistent player, but has lacked a permanent partnership that has yielded top results. He still found himself in two Masters finals and two quarterfinals last season. The one big stopping point was at Slams, where his best finish was the round of 16 at the French Open. In his career, he’s played in just one Grand Slam final and that came in 2010 at the U.S. Open with Qureshi. Roger-Vasselin has been two a pair of Grand Slam finals, winning the French and losing the final at Wimbledon in 2016. I think with the Frenchman focused on doubles, there is a chance for this pairing to be special.
Goal: Push the top teams. I don’t think they necessarily need to win a ton of titles to have a chance to make some noise this season. What they need to do is show that they have the chemistry to push teams like Kontinen-Peers, Kubot-Melo and Murray-Soares. If they do, the wins will come and they should be in the mix for a spot in London.
These are two solid doubles players who simply need to find a rhythm together I think to make an immediate impact. We’ll get to see if that happens in Auckland next week. Venus has been involved in 14 career doubles finals with seven titles, while Klaasen has 25 finals appearances with 13 titles. Klaasen has done that with seven different partners. For me, that speaks to his quality and ability to mesh with his partner.
Goal: Early success. The ASB Classic in Auckland was a great jumping off point for Venus and Mate Pavic in 2016. They won their first title together in that tournament and had three total by the end of February. 2017 champions Marcin Matkowski and Aisam Ul-Haq Qureshi won in Auckland the first time they paired up, so there is some historical success for newly minted teams. Toss in that Klaasen won there in 2015 with Leander Paes and that stop in NZ could yield big things to catalyze this duo.
Up until late in 2017, Rojer-Tecau looked like they were on their way to being a very middling team. It’s funny how a Grand Slam title changes things. Their finish to the season rekindled hope that the former world number ones can still get it done in their fifth year together.
Goal: Avoid prolonged slumps. Rojer-Tecau got mired in a slump early in the season that took them a long time to dig out of as they went just 6-5 before winning the titles in Dubai in early March. After that, it took them nearly three months to make another final in Geneva in late May. Then it was nearly three months until the next in Winston-Salem in late August, so you see the trend. During their two best seasons in 2014 and 2015, they found success much more consistently. A return to that sort of form would boost their odds of making the fieled in London in 2018.
8. The Mystery Team
In recent years, there has almost always been one surprise team to that comes out of nowhere to make this field. Maybe Bopanna-ERV are that team, but I have a feeling it could be one that I haven’t touched on or one that has not even formed yet. We saw that last year with Ryan Harrison and Michael Venus. 2016 brought us Team Lopez with Marc and Feliciano making the field as a new tandem that surprised many by winning the French Open. 2015 brought Matkowski and Zimonjic into the field of eight in London, despite not pairing up for the first time until March.
So one of the spots in London could fall to a relative unknown or unexpected squad. I think the Ram-Baker partnership might have some possibility of being in the mix or perhaps if Dodig and Verdasco stick together long enough, they might make a run. Dodig has made five straight trips to the Tour Finals with two different partners (Melo,Granollers). Keep an eye on who he plays with the most this season.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO ….
As always, when Grand Slams roll around – keep your eyes on the unseeded teams. Time and time again, they spring surprises on us. We’ve seen an unseeded team win at least one Grand Slam in each of the last four seasons. Down under, the surprise could be Lleyton Hewitt teaming with Sam Groth in Groth’s final tournament before retiring. As for some other random predictions for 2018, I’ll go with the Bryan Brothers winning the U.S. Open titles and then one of the brothers (Bob) retiring from the game altogether. Donald Young will become more well known for his doubles play then in singles.
… and Bethanie Mattek-Sands will return to tour in 2018 to rekindle “Team Bucie” with Lucie Safarova at some point. That in turn, should ramp up my interest in WTA doubles again which will be missing Martina Hingis due to retirement and Sania Mirza due to injury as 2018 gets underway.